Being and Nazism

Alexander S. Duff’s Heidegger and Politics: The Ontology of Radical Dissent adds to the literature on this important and distasteful subject. Martin Heidegger’s radical understanding of human passions, language, and everyday life, his illuminating discussions of previous philosophers, and his novel exploration of what it means for anything to be at all must be considered by anyone who wishes to study these subjects. To ignore Heidegger is intellectually foolish, unless by some remarkable good fortune one could gain his insights simply on one’s own. Anyone able to do this, however, is unlikely to be so vain as to reject the help of Heidegger’s books and lectures.

Yet Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) supported the Nazis, and his support was aggressive in the first few years of their reign. After the war, he hid or downplayed his engagement as best he could, trying to explain away what was visible (he was Rector of Freiburg’s university for 10 months shortly after the Nazis took power); not mentioning what was still largely unknown; and never apologizing. The many attempts by his followers to ignore his support or to isolate it completely from his thought have by now all failed, as evidence mounts of his anti-Semitic characterizations, his continuing connections during the 1930s and beyond with other academics who supported the Nazis and, especially damning, statements he made in classes from 1933 through 1935 that no one except a convinced Heidegger apologist could avoid recognizing as support for Germany’s expansion, and the exclusion or, indeed, the destruction of Jews.

The connection between Heidegger’s Nazism and his thought was already visible in his Nazi-era public speeches and messages, although few Heidegger scholars took these documents seriously intellectually. This is not to say, however, that Heidegger’s politics follow ineluctably from every aspect of his thought or that his thought requires support for the Nazis (or whatever comes closest to them) in all situations.

One merit of this book by Duff, who teaches political philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, is that he explores this ambiguity more thoroughly than others who have also noticed it. Here the author takes his lead, or his first steps, from the political use that others have made of Heidegger. There are radical uses, exemplified in the Iranian revolutionary advocates Ali Shari’ati and Ahmad Fardid. With these two writers, says Duff, Heidegger’s questioning of the West’s underpinnings becomes a source both for questioning the West and for grounding Islam. These revolutionary uses stem from Heidegger’s own radicalism, or from his “ontology of radical discontent.”

Quieter or more passive political impulses that stem from Heidegger, moreover, are connected to his questioning of technology, his waiting for gods and holiness, and his preparing our openness to what truly is. And, there are other radical but not fully radical uses, Duff notes, that are related to Heidegger’s having connected his political hopes for the Nazis with his wish for educational reform. Heidegger came to praise the student-centered efforts of the late 1960s and early 1970s to restructure German and perhaps Western education. His dislike of liberal moderation never left him.

If there is a scholarly defect in Duff’s discussion of Heidegger’s politics it is his decision not to examine the material on Georg Hegel, the state, and Germany that are available in notes and reports from Heidegger’s newly published courses from 1933 through 1935.  He therefore leaves insufficiently addressed the evidence that I mentioned earlier.

Another result of this neglect, and of Duff’s interest in various “Heideggerian” approaches to politics, is that he somewhat downplays Heidegger’s involvement with Germany and the way in which the radical rethinking that he sought is grounded in his particular understanding of the Germans’ language, history, and land. The material from the 1930s also helps us to see what Heidegger has in mind when he discusses “the people”—a topic whose importance in understanding Heidegger’s politics is clear to Duff (as it often is not to interpreters of Heidegger), but whose meaning is ambiguous.

Duff is concerned not only with the political meaning of Heidegger’s works, but with his thought generally. He attends especially to what might be relevant to ethics and politics, but he does not limit himself to this. Within that thought he concentrates on Being and Time (1927). But he also makes good use of Heidegger’s courses and intended publications from 1919 until Being and Time was written in 1926, and also emphasizes some of his later work on Friedrich Nietzsche.

The book begins with the claim that Heidegger “disassembl[es] the distinction between theory and practice,” and that he believes that “without rethinking the meaning of Being it will be impossible to free ourselves from the awful mixture of tedium and horror that constitutes contemporary political life.” Heidegger saw from his earliest teaching that a philosophic ethics requires “an account of the consciousness.” But once Heidegger begins to explore the roots of consciousness it becomes clear that his thought forecloses any formal ethics. Still, he “articulates an understanding of human existence that entails profound ethical and political consequences.” Ultimately the result is the “demanding of an awful neutrality on Heidegger’s part on matters of the most urgent political and moral character.”

How, then, does Heidegger proceed, given the difficulty that attempting to look theoretically at what is basic in human action de-vivifies it, freezing or draining the very vitality one wishes to explore? Duff argues that Heidegger learned from Karl Jaspers that “if the primordial fundamental experiences that need to be apprehended are moving events . . . then Jaspers’ method of zeroing in on limit situations, moments where the flow of life itself comes briefly to a stop, is a most promising development.”

Thus, Heidegger comes to stress the human understanding of dying, anxiety, and guilt. But Jaspers himself remains too theoretical. Heidegger therefore turns to or discovers the “method” of “formal indication” to overcome Jaspers’ static theorizing. Duff, following much recent scholarship, understands this method as supplying Heidegger’s “sought-after means of apprehending the self’s anxious concern about itself.” But Duff does not tell us enough about this “method” to allow us to employ it for ourselves. In his and others’ account, indeed, it is largely only a name for Heidegger’s attempt to show how it is that whatever we explore, including ourselves, must first be meaningful or intelligible to us, and that we must continue to return to this beginning in our ongoing explorations. In Duff’s terms, Heidegger’s method is to point out a subject matter while still including the “subject” (that is, man) in his disclosure.

One then discovers that it is in “an experience of trauma and disruption [that] the world is revealed to us as it genuinely is.” Here and elsewhere, however, while Duff is correct to emphasize disruption and anxiety, he does not discuss fully enough the import of Heidegger’s view that our Being is always an issue for us, not merely when we authentically confront guilt, anxiety, and dying.

Duff then turns to elements of Being and Time that are relevant for understanding Heidegger’s politics. He concentrates on that work’s treatment of “everydayness,” “Being-with,” and what Heidegger understands as the everyday “they-self.” Duff’s special focus is on the emergence of theory from practice. In  his view, Heidegger believes that  “everydayness is both a philosophical obstacle—that is, it privileges theory . . . at the expense of a deeper form of thinking—as well as the necessary starting point for philosophic thinking.” Our Being is obscure to us because

Dasein [human being] typically understands itself, Heidegger claims, as a being like all other beings whose existence is a matter of indifference, for whom time is not an issue. It does this because in its everydayness it (a) privileges the stable, visible, reliable, publically discussed aspect of the beings it encounters and (b) understands itself in the light of these aspects of the beings.

In offering this account, Duff passes over what Heidegger learns from Aristotle, which is evident in several courses Heidegger taught in the early 1920s and in the draft introduction for a book he planned to write on Aristotle’s thought. This leads Duff to overemphasize stability and regularity in the everyday at the expense of production, completion, and a kind of movement and activity. And it renders somewhat misleading his account of the emergence and place in Heidegger’s thought of science, theory, and what is purely present. Lost, too, is the opportunity to discuss Heidegger’s understanding of the important topic of nature and the natural. That said, Duff is one of few scholars who intelligently discusses the connection between theory and practice in Being and Time.

In the next chapter, Duff turns to the “dictatorship” of “the they,” writing that “Dasein tends in its everydayness toward seeing itself as a determined, unfree being with a nature either formed by its surroundings or else in need of mastering them, rather than a thrown, open, free project, capable of being true ‘to its ownmost self’ in community with other Dasein.” He adds that “on Heideggerian principles both conservatism, as the preserver of tradition, and any progressive orientation to politics are oriented by the everyday elevation of security, conformity, comfort, stability, and regularity . . . premised . . . on a fundamental alienation from one’s fellow Dasein.”

Duff’s argument here is well along the right track. But he does not examine in sufficient detail Heidegger’s view of the dominance of technology in the contemporary world or the novelty of his understanding of technology as first presenting everything to us as a formless reserve for endless use. This lack is not made up in Duff’s discussion of his next theme, which centers on the connection between Being and nihilism. This discussion, however, does advance his thoughtful analysis of what makes Heidegger’s disclosure of the question of Being possible, here and now.

The book concludes by elaborating more completely Duff’s view of the two forms of Heideggerian politics.

First are “the characteristic elements of a radically particularist political ontology.” What Heidegger intends with this form is “the total theoretical-practical transformation of the everyday.” Moderate reform and compromise are inadequate, “revolutionary hardness must predominate,” class and party politics are refused, “perpetual instability is the mark of authentic politics,” and revolution against domestic defenders of tradition, and progressives, is more important than foreign engagement. In this context, what Duff considers “most striking” in “the documents where Heidegger’s own Nazism is clearest” is the “extent to which he concerns himself with arguing against his fellow Nazis’ interpretation of the German Revolution.”

The other form of Heideggerian politics is what Duff calls “the politics of particularist, quietist awaiting.” Here, “revolutionary violence” participates in the “fallen” everyday. Writes Duff:

When the everyday is already so fallen that revolutionary violence is . . . inauthentic . . . the Heideggerian will refuse to indict one everyday regime in preference for another . . . Though it is neutral as to regime type [however,] the quietist retains a preference for localist and other expressions of particularism. . . . A politics of quietist awaiting is as authentically Heideggerian as a politics of perpetual revolution and is similarly a response to the permanent conditions of Dasein’s falseness.

This is a useful discussion. As I have indicated, however, I believe the author does not come to grips with the extent and basis of Heidegger’s own support of the Nazis and the understanding of the German people on which it rested. Heidegger is not merely one “Heideggerian” among others. Duff also does not explore sufficiently how one might account for all that differentiates liberal democracies from contemporary tyrannies and theocracies, and what the grounds of such an account could teach us about the limits of Heidegger’s view of man and Being.

On the whole, Duff offers a thoughtful exploration of Heidegger’s politics. He is informed by a more subtle understanding of political philosophy than one sees among the vast majority of Heidegger scholars. This enables him to recognize some of what is missing in Heidegger—a discussion of institutions and regimes, for example—that for them is an unnoticed absence. He also indicates that “Socratic political philosophy and Aristotelian political science” offer an alternative to Heidegger that permits “a better understanding of the human situation.” Let us hope that one can transform the brief statement of such a possibility into a full and detailed account.